After Week 22, we featured the slugfest out West in the space below, a battle royale the Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle, who's kindly granted me this space while he cavorts around Catalina on vacation, dubbed MLS' "big fight."
But after a weekend in which LA and Colorado got shellacked by a combined score of 8-3 by Eastern Conference opponents, perhaps it's time to turn our gaze to the São Paulo-esque traffic jam in what general consensus – and head-to-head records – tells us is the weaker circuit.
That may be so, but with seven teams within seven points of each other and only 14 cross-conference clashes left, the ladder you see above is going get put through the ringer from now until October, even if the action isn't always easy on the eyes (looking at you Chicago and Montreal).
Sit back and enjoy, because while their regular-season performances might not match up to the talent-rich West, who's to say some plucky, on-form squad from the East won't come up trumps when it really matters in November and early December?
Here are a few things we saw in Week 23:
1. Gregg Berhalter's Wild Ride
"Wax on, wax off, Gregg-san."
I thought that was a marginally clever line, emphasis on marginally, considering Crew boss Gregg Berhalter was staring down his first head-to-head matchup with former boss and Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena (plus, it was paired with a GIF of Mr Miyagi catching a fly with chopsticks). I had a lot of thoughts about Saturday's Columbus-LA clash, and not one of them included the possibility that the home side would run out 4-1 victors.
After pulling out of a swan dive that lasted three-and-a-half months and included just one win following a flawless start that had people breathless about the future under Berhalter, the Crew are starting to show signs that they're better than that long malaise made them look. Of course, you'll pardon me if I wait to declare Columbus cured after what was probably their "best game of the year."
Yes, they still need a stud center forward (heck, just a consistent goalscoring threat and back-to-goal presence) to truly threaten Sporting Kansas City and D.C. United in the East, but all of a sudden Ethan Finlay (six goals, four assists and this stunner vs. LA) and Justin Meram (four, goals, three assists in just nine starts and owner of this GOTW candidate) are causing havoc in front of Federico Higuaín, and Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp are winning the battle in central midfield.
Slowly but surely, Columbus are climbing the playoff ladder and reestablishing some much-needed belief after three wins in five. Now they've just got to lock things down in back, where shutouts (last on June 29) have been in very short supply.
SIDENOTE: In what may turn out to be another subplot of Landon Donovan's final season – apart from jersey-swapping predictions, of course – the Crew and Berhalter pulled out all the stops with a ceremony fit for the undisputed king of US soccer. I'd write about it here, but I'm not going to waste my time with SI.com's Brian Straus already on the case.
Either way, standard Donovan logic (save your best for the biggest of stages or when personally challenged) followed that Saturday would the time to break his regular-season duck at the stadium where he's experienced success on so many other levels.
That was an interesting pregame stat, especially since Donovan has played more than 700 regular-season minutes in Crew Stadium and done the business so many times with the United States and in the playoffs. Only it remained true after the match as well.
Even more interesting, meanwhile, was the Nordecke's (or at least part of it) pro-Klinsmann tifo late in the match, seemingly directed at LD.* They didn't seem to have much appreciation for the goal he scored less than a year ago to put another Dos a Cero and another World Cup bid on ice, but perhaps club colors simply run deeper in that corner of the stadium.
*The tifo pictured below was repurposed from the 2013 US-Mexico match. It was originally produced then pulled out of retirement by a group of Crew supporters that call themselves #TIFOSWEAT. They also produced the Guardians of the Galaxy tifo from this weekend. The intent, I'm told, was tongue in cheek, something they thought Donovan would understand since he also got a #massive celebration before the match. No harm, no foul.
Crew fans' tribute to Donovan: pic.twitter.com/Y4WqFIsiPt— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) August 17, 2014
Of course, that didn't keep Donovan from getting some love from Berhalter, his former teammate with both club and country, and the rest of the Crew fans gathered for the ocassion on a night in which Columbus routed one of the league's shining lights and also rounded out their front office as rebranding looms (October is the latest word).
So, yeah, it was a good night to wear black and gold, even if you'll never convince me that's not yellow.
2. Don't engrave Harry Shipp's name on that ROY award just yet...
Back in early July, it seemed sewn up. Harry Shipp, the Chicago Fire's Homegrown midfield maestro and owner of a pantheon name, would be the 2014 Rookie of the Year.
There's a reason you don't call the engraver in July.
Shipp may still have the statistical edge (six goals, five assists), but FC Dallas' Tesho Akindele (seven goals, one assist) certainly has the momentum after a hat-trick performance against San Jose made the Colorado School of Mines a household name among MLS fans. It also made Oscar Pareja the de facto man to go to for advice about rangy forward prospects (see Deshorn Brown a year ago), if he wasn't already.
Here's the best of the bunch, a opportunistic finish typical of Akindele's night lurking on the back post and bursting into space when appropriate:
It certainly helps Akindele that he's got MLS' most terrifying open-field player in Fabián Castillo on the opposite flank, and the two combined for five goals and an assist against the shell-shocked Quakes, with the Colombian sensation driving at the defense with the ball and Akindele cleaning up in the box. Castillo, by the way, promised Pareja 12 goals this season. He's got eight despite missing considerable time because of suspension. Anyone else wish the US could somehow sneak him into the player pool?
Without a healthy and productive Mauro Díaz, who remains in a holding pattern after that long injury layoff, Dallas aren't trying to fool anyone right now. You can have the ball. You can take some space. You'll just leave room on the break for Akindele and Castillo to tear you apart (and Andrés Escobar, too). And did I mention that Blas Pérez didn't even start this game? That's downright scary.
Don't look now, but FC Dallas are unbeaten in nine (five wins) in the regular season and boast the most explosive attack in MLS. Go ahead and carve out time now for Friday night's clash with Real Salt Lake (8 pm ET, NBCSN).
3. Goalkeeper controversy? What goalkeeper controversy?
Turns out that depth-chart battle between the posts in Philly is three deep.
We got our first regular-season look at No. 1-overall SuperDraft pick Andre Blake this weekend against Houston in a 2-0 loss, and the Jamaican certainly didn't disappoint. He also flailed on a couple crosses and had a few misadventures, but frankly that's par for the course in your first league start.
Blake also did things like this, launching a split-second counterattack with a 75-yard laser-guided drop kick that Sébastien Le Toux couldn't quite finish off. If there's another goalkeeper in MLS (hell, name the league) that can do what he did below, I haven't seen him or I'm just not looking hard enough.
Then there were moments that made Union fans want to swallow their tongue. Moments that Blake will grow out of with a little experience (and maybe a mistake or two to reinforce the lesson). Moments that Philly may not have the patience for after going through the same process with Zac MacMath.
Andre Blake probably should avoid dribbling around guys in his own box in the future if possible.— Dave Zeitlin (@DaveZeitlin) August 16, 2014
The question now is how many opportunities Blake will have to make those mistakes (and perhaps realize his massive potential) in Philly.
Interim boss Jim Curtin gave MacMath a rest against the Dynamo – he'd started every league game in goal since May 26, 2012 – and Rais Mbolhi is still working through those dreaded paperwork issues, but the latter seems certain to be the long-term starter based on pedigree and investment.
So where does that leave Blake? For now, pounding on the door for more opportunities in the most competitive goalkeeping stable in MLS.
A few more things to ponder...
6. Doneil Henry may be one of the most exciting young defenders in MLS, but the 21-year-old has a discipline problem that's not going away. The Toronto FC center back can do things many of his peers can't even imagine. He also tends to do things many of his peers wouldn't ever imagine doing.
Against Sporting KC on Saturday, Henry launched himself into the latest in a string of head-scratching tackles (this one brought on partially by bad luck after the ball struck referee Drew Fischer) that resulted in his fourth penalty conceded in MLS play this year. That total, unsurprisingly, leads the league. It's also more than any player has recorded in a single season since Opta started recording stats in 2011. Oh, and it's not even the full extent of his misbehavior in the 18-yard box this season.
Doneil Henry leads Major League Soccer in penalties conceded this season with five in all competition.— Kurtis Larson (@KurtLarSUN) August 17, 2014
Love the potential. Love the physical tools. Love the fact that Ryan Nelsen is sticking with Henry through thick and thin. But something has to give – and quick – or this is going to become a trait rather than an unfortunate trend.
5. The Almost Goal of the Year But It Hit The Crossbar award in Week 23 goes to Fabián Espíndola, who plays angry (notice the clenched fist and bulging veins in the his neck) and almost always delivers a moment that nobody else on the field has any hope of pulling off. Watch the video below, then get a second look. Trust me, it's worth it.
Espíndola scored one in D.C. United's 4-2 romp over the Rapids, his first start since June 11, but former RSL man could have had a handful in a shift that started slow but got better and better as time went on. Considering his MVP-caliber form pre-injury and -suspension, no defender will be looking forward to matching up with D.C. (EJ, Rolfe, Silva, DeLeon … Pontius, if only) as they look to shore up their MLS Cup credentials (winners of five of seven) and push on to the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage during the next three months.
Next up, similarly rampant Sporting KC with first place in the Eastern Conference's at stake (Saturday at 8:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE).
4. Meanwhile, in the Squarely in the Running for Goal Of the Year category, the Rapids' Homegrown midfielder Dillon Serna did this:
3. The Armchair Analyst labelled the Whitecaps a one-trick pony last week – both complimentary and warily – and then the pony got left in the stable in a scoreless draw on the road at Chivas USA, a game that could have opened a four-point gap between Vancouver and their two closest challengers.
That pony is the counterattack, except Pedro Morales wasn't around to man the reins this time around, to the chagrin of my MLS Fantasy team, until nil-nil took on a real air of inevitability (22 minutes played, eight passes completed and three shots from no-man's land).
Chivas USA did what they had to do, only Cubo didn't make Vancouver pay. Wilmer Cabrera refused to give Darren Mattocks, Omar Salgado, Russell Teibert and, eventually, Kekuta Manneh and Erik Hurtado open field to work with, inviting the 'Caps to bomb away from distance (below are Chivas USA's clearances, blocks, interceptions and tackles, almost all clustered in and around the final third).
Most teams, especially at home, will come out to play a bit more (408 passes for Vancouver to Chivas' 299), but head coach Carl Robinson is going to have to tease another means of attack out of this young group if they're to challenge in the West. That and hope Morales steers clearl of fatigue, injury and suspension for three-plus months.
2. Speaking of Morales, Javi was out (hip), and Luis Gil was in at the top of the diamond against Seattle, the team everyone assumed would run away with the Supporters' Shield post-World Cup before they lost four of six, including the weekend's marquee matchup in Sandy sans the suspended Obafemi Martins.
Gil spent most of his day in the Sounders half, connecting with his teammates on both wings as Real Salt Lake dominated possession (58 percent). And while it wasn't a particularly massive day from a chance-creation standpoint (three key passes and little activity in Zone 14), the kind of ball you see below reinforces why he'll be a centerpiece of the United States U-23s come 2016 in Rio.
1. The own goal is nothing if not cruel, and Union right back Ray Gaddis suffered some undeserved misery this week after Omar Cummings' driven cross took a 90-degree deflection off his foot, tucking itself in the corner of Blake's net from the edge of the 18-yard box to make it 2-0 Dynamo in the 90th minute.
That's about as unlucky as it gets for Gaddis – who really is having a wonderful season in just his second as a starter (third as a pro) in Philly – but that doesn't make him exempt from Face of the Week infamy (you're encouraged to tweet other nominations to me).
Finally, lest ye forget what Giles Barnes did to Djimi Traoré last week, this undressing of Fábinho is how we'll end things for Week 23, with plenty left unsaid but surely floating around out there for you to find.